Gene Ferrara starts the Sunday service by encouraging the six men and six women seated in a semicircle before him to explore their "inner space."
"Let your outer eye close and your inner eye open," Ferrara instructed as he led the worshipers at his new Center for Conscious Living through a guided meditation. Later, participants went around the circle greeting each other with the Hindi salutation "namaste." They clasped their palms together, bowed slightly, smiled and looked each other in the eye.
In the middle of the service, Ferrara passed out dark chocolate and blackberries as part of a "prasada," or gift. The same basket was later used to collect money.
The group, a branch of the Madison Church of Religious Science, is reinventing the idea of church, with "stand you up" live music, meditation, singing, chanting and "an inclusive message of self-empowerment."
The result has been enriching and transforming, said Dianne Becker, 50, who plays guitar and sings at the Sunday services.
"I'm hoping to watch it grow. It's an open book at this point," said Becker, who didn't grow up with organized religion and said she had been feeling a spiritual void in recent years. "We're just excited about the potential."
The large room is decorated with rugs and wall hangings and sports a stage, video projector, and sophisticated sound system.
Ferrara, 63, came to Madison from Milwaukee in September 2008 to take over the Madison Church of Religious Science when its pastor moved away. The church's Sunday services were then being held at the AmericInn Lodge & Suites in Monona. The church - part of the International Centers for Spiritual Living based in Spokane, Wash. - was chartered in Madison in 1995.
The denomination doesn't adhere to a traditional view of God. Rather, it is bound by the belief that the divine works through people, Ferrara said. "We find our connection to the divine in ourselves and in our interactions with others."
He tends to use the word "divine," "source" or "spirit" instead of "God," saying that word has taken on a lot of baggage over the centuries. "For some people it can trigger a spiritual shutdown," he said.
After taking over the congregation, Ferrara soon began looking for a bigger location where he could not only hold Sunday services but also have activities seven days a week.
"We were motivated to build sacred space and invite the community at large to come and use it in a sacred way," said Ferrara, a divorced father of two adult children who lives in the town of Westport.
From TV producer to pastor
Ferrara has been using a variety of approaches to attract people to the unique spiritual center he opened Oct. 22 inside a brick building that was originally a bakery at 849 E. Washington Ave. on Madison's Near East side. Online, the center answers to the Web addresses of "mylovingspirit.com," "livingonpurpose.org," "consciouscenter.org" and "wakethehellup.org."
Originally from Ohio, Ferrara raised his family in Wauwatosa. He spent most of his working life in television production and sales. In the 1980s he began a five-year study of mystical Christianity. He calls himself "eclectic theologically," and has never been through seminary.
He was ordained in 2003 through the Universal Brotherhood Movement, a nonprofit interfaith ministry that screens, ordains and supports a "more universal" type of ministry, Ferrara said.
For years, he officiated at funerals for families that didn't have their own clergy and was often approached afterward by people interested in coming to his church. Although he struggled with taking on the responsibility of having a congregation, eventually he sought his own pulpit.
Ferrara designed the Center for Conscious Living with $15,000 he got from his father's estate and is using some of the money as a rent cushion. He would eventually like to draw a $1,000-a-month salary from donations, but for now lives primarily on Social Security.
A ‘safe place' to commune
Besides Sunday services, the center offers a weekly "spiritual cinema," and an alcohol-free dance night on Saturdays. The rest of the week, Ferrara partners with others, who use the space for activities that include hula hoop exercise sessions, yoga, concerts, drum circles and seminars.
"We built the place and then we just stood back and we're allowing the desire of the community to reveal itself - by who e-mails, who calls, who walks through the door," Ferrara said. "I feel like a bobblehead doll. I haven't said no to anybody."
Garrett Walters, 55, of Stoughton, who calls himself a clairvoyant healer but has a degree in geology, first came to the center for a drum circle, which he said is part of his "spiritual path." He credited Ferrara with creating a safe place for people from different religious traditions to come together in a spiritual communion.
"Many spiritual environments are designed to advance one particular spiritual agenda, and that implicitly or explicitly brands other spiritual paths as bad or wrong," Walters said. "And to me, that creates a space that is not safe for me to explore my own spiritual truth. There is only room in that space to explore someone else's truth."
Ferrara's center allows people to find their own spiritual answers, he said.
"I admire and respect that," Walters said. "That's a tough thing to try to do. Madison is a very intellectually driven town."